Imagine for a moment that you have never seen a train, or the sea, or a ship. Sounds unlikely today but in 1849 it was normal not to have experienced any of these. Then imagine, those of you with children, that you are going to be confined with them in a sailing ship for three months ,with probably only one encounter with land en route, where you will almost certainly not be let off the ship. Possibly you might die en route , possibly you might give birth or your children fall ill. This was what faced the thirty or so emigrants from Child Okeford when they set sail in the “Emigrant” a ship designed and purchased for the purpose of transporting colonists.
We have no account from them of what it was like but an excellent website describes it well. http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/stories/shipboard-19th-century-emigrant-experience-0
What we do have however is a verbatim account from the Rector of Durweston, Sydney Godolphin Osborne of the trip to Plymouth. The mid-Victorian clergy were not known for their compassion or sense of social responsibility but the Revd Osborne, who wrote this account, was an exception. Despite himself being a “lord” he was well known for his vociferous defence of the poor using the Twitter of his day – the newspapers.
To the Salisbury and Winchester Gazette,
“On Monday the 5th of this month 136 souls of ages varying from two years to 41 left my immediate neighbourhood under the auspices of the Blandford branch of the Colonisation Society Every pains had been taken to see that they were properly outfitted for the voyage and two respectable individuals volunteered to go in charge of them superintending their provisions etc on the road from Blandford to Taunton. At the latter place by the kindness of the railway companies third class carriages were found for them and they were sent on with little delay to Plymouth. At the Laira station I met them they having joined on the road by a fresh batch from another part of the county an earlier train having brought in large numbers from Somerset Wilts and Gloucestershire.
By taking all the flies on the stand and one omnibus we soon stowed away the women and children : the men were glad to walk the two miles in to the depot at Plymouth. To the great credit of our two superintendents and owing also to the precautionary rules we had drawn out for the journey not a single box was lost and all our live and dead stock for the good ship Emigrant arrived safe at the depot ; nor was any complaint made to me of ill conduct on the part of one of the travellers through a wearying journey in which none for 36 hours could have much if any rest.
Of the depot itself I need not say much it consists of large buildings within a gateway with extensive yards. These buildings are fitted up to receive the emigrants for the time they may be detained waiting for their ship and also to undergo the inspection of the medical officer and to receive certain canvass bags and other articles, part of their outfit furnished by the commissioners from deposit money paid by each emigrant. As to the nature of the depot arrangements its mess rooms laundries and dormitories although in some small matters of order and detail I could wish for some improvement I saw nothing to which I could make any reasonable objection. All the officers of the establishment seemed disposed to show every kindness to the emigrants and I found my people the next day after their nights rest quite happy and comfortable with nothing to complain of, all very busy writing home to tell of the wonders of a railway journey ending at a place where they looked out upon the sea and saw real ships.
I went on board three emigrant ships; to two of them I paid repeated visits. I saw the Emigrant of 753 tons the ship in which my poor were about to embark before even the bedding was come on board. I saw the Florentia for Adelaide with all her passengers on board having come down the channel with them in very heavy weather. I went on board the Lady Peel a few hours after she had embarked 180 Irish girls, bound for Sydney. I had therefore every opportunity of examining into every detail of their economy. I was most kindly assisted by every officer of her Majesty’s commissioners whose duties were connected with the inspection of the ships and the embarkation of the emigrants; they refused me no opportunity of obtaining every detail of information however minute which I was desirous of obtaining. It appeared to me that no precaution was omitted on the part of the Government to secure thoroughly safe and sound ships that they should be well found well manned and respectfully and skilfully commanded.
I have spoken of temporal matters; the emigrants are not neglected in spiritual matters; each ship I found again and again visited by one of the Plymouth clergy, a lady who seems to devote herself to this good work and a gentleman whom I believe to be an agent of the Pastoral Aid society. These good Samaritans seemed thoroughly united in their work. They were assiduous amongst the emigrants giving them Bibles Prayer books etc, providing work for the women for the voyage; advising them on their conduct seeking to form classes amongst them for mutual instruction etc. Nothing struck me more forcibly than the respect paid by the captains crews and all concerned to the persons who thus act amongst the emigrants. I can remember when a boatload of preachers, teachers and Bibles would not have met the respect and ready assistance I have here witnessed again and again. I was asked to baptize two infants born on the voyage down in the Florentia, just about to sail out again. The captain was himself present and took every means in his power to show not only his sense of the solemnity of the service but his sympathy for the rather trying position of the mothers.
Now Sir do not let me be misunderstood. I do not mean to say that the “between decks” of the emigrant with her 326 emigrating souls or in office language her 256.5 statute adults being Dorset Wilts Somerset and Gloucestershire labourers was an Elysium, a scene of perfect comfort and convenience;- no it is a folly to tell emigrants that a ship can afford to labouring men with large families all that they could wish or we could wish for them, But I am perfectly satisfied that whilst the diet is infinitely superior to anything they have ever been used to their accommodation by day and by night is as good as any reasonable being could expect to be at the command of so great numbers conveyed free of all expense, so great a distance, in a ship.
The single men’s and single women’s compartments and the infirmaries are except in the matter of ornament nearly as good in their accommodation as that of many a yacht in which nobleman live for months -superior to thousands of berths paid for by parties emigrating at their own expense. The crying evil is the noise and pranks of the very small children which until one has got use to it made the married peoples compartment literally a Babel. But as the parents did not seem to mind it, I suppose it was not so insupportable as it appeared to a looker on: however from my present experience I do not feel inclined to urge persons with many small children to emigrate; and I think the commissioners exercise a wise discretion in being chary of free passages in such cases.
By the kindness of a gentleman at Plymouth who put his yacht at my service I was enable to go some little way out of the sound with my people; to the last I saw them cheerful, contended and happy. On the whole I saw no one reason to regret the pains I and my neighbours have taken to launch there our poor fellow creatures on a sea of adventure which I trust will bear them to lands where their industry and honesty may win for them comforts for life denied them here.”
Revd. Sydney Godolphin Osborne March 1849